“Maybe the Most Original and Radical Art Movement of the 20th Century”
Director Isa Willinger interviewed by Boris Schumatsky 
 
Boris Schumatsky: Your film is about people living in buildings of the Russian avant-garde and about the buildings themselves. You seem to be just as fascinated by the buildings as by your protagonists. What is it that struck you about the Constructivist buildings?
Isa Willinger: To me the buildings seem like ruins from another future. I spent some time in Moscow some years ago and on my walks through the city I discovered these exceptional buildings. They really stick out from the rest of Moscow's city landscape. Many of them are quite run down today, yet they still radiate their futuristic visions. This, of course, is a stunning paradox: Something is from the past and at the same time it seems from the future.

Can you tell us about the background of Constructivism?
The term was first applied to the abstract works of art by Tatlin, Malevich, Popova, Stepanova, El Lissitzky and others in the 1910s and 1920s. Soon, the artists' works transgressed the boundary between geometrical shapes on paper or canvas and architectural drawings toying with those shapes. The first Constructivist buildings were built in the mid 20s only, due to a lack of resources in early Soviet Russia. The Constructivist movement was infused with the hopes of the socialist revolution, overcoming a repressive tsarist regime and building a better, modern society.

In your film, you are trying to bring back the Russian avant-garde or maybe modernity in general to the present. But is modernity not a chapter of days long past?
It is true, to me the buildings signify the height of modernity. In that sense, they transcend their tie to Russian history and become markers for the condition that modern men and women in general are coined by. At one point in the film I am using the Nietzsche-quotation "Where is God? ... I'll tell you! We have killed him - you and I...". There is a sense of lostness that comes with modernity, along with the mind-blowing gesture of self-empowerment. Today, we are still in the midst of all this. Spiritually and politically. Again and again we need to fight for empowerment of the people, against neo-tsarist regimes or corporate powers that determine our world. So, in a nutshell, our world today is still struggling with the modern condition. We have not outlived it.

How did you pick the three buildings and protagonists that you are focusing on in the film?
I visited about fifty of the constructivist buildings and always tried to get inside to see what kind of life there is today in these places. For the film, I wanted to find people that had a special relationship to their building. Often, it was very difficult to enter. Some of the buildings belong to the army or the Secret Service, and several times I was chased away by armed guards immediately. It was impossible to enter the industrial buildings like the bread-factories, even after writing many letters. The residential buildings you can enter only after you have established a contact with somebody beforehand.

You are using documentary footage from the 1920s, among others by Dziga Vertov. Did the filmmakers of the 20s film the constructivist buildings extensively?
There are a few shots of them in Vertov's films. In Eisenstein's The General Line, there is a Constructivist farmhouse. But in general, there is surprisingly little footage of the buildings. And there is only very little footage that stages the buildings’ expressiveness, as we know it from photographs by Rodchenko, for example. We found some stunning shots in the newsreels though. For the film, I slowed them down a lot. Then, the shots convey glimpses of life: children playing in front of the Narkomfin-building, or two passers-by dancing on the street in front of Rusakov-Workers'-Club.

Is there something contemporary architecture can learn from Constructivist architecture?
In many ways, Constructivism was very progressive. The architects came up with totally new types of buildings: communal apartment buildings, clubhouses for workers, bread factories, canteen kitchens. The fact that they included kindergartens and canteens into apartment buildings, so women could be freed from their subordinate role as housewives is so ahead of us today. Also, the fact that they thought about the workers' education and designed clubhouses with libraries and theatres - these social values are highly progressive.
The use of organic materials, like wood, is in an interesting tension to the modernist, abstract shapes. So, in spite of their geometrical coolness they radiate a warmth and humanness that I personally miss in a lot of contemporary architecture.

Why then is Constructivist architecture so little known?
In the field of architecture, constructivism is internationally well known and highly respected. Leading contemporary architects like Zaha Hadid or Rem Koolhaas have been influenced by it. In Soviet Russia, artistic experimentation ended in the early 30s when the state became more and more authoritarian. Stalin proclaimed Socialist Realism in 1932 and suffocated maybe the most original and radical art movement of the 20th century. They Constructivist buildings were too original, too cutting edge for the totalitarian regime that Stalin installed. They were denounced as eccentric and bourgeois. In contemporary Russia, there is still little awareness of the value of constructivism.

Are the masterpieces of Constructivism generally threatened by destruction?
Many of the buildings are being torn down, as real estate prices in Moscow are among the highest in the world. There are a few civic groups that are trying to save what is left of the buildings. But in many people's eyes, the buildings look too plain to be beautiful - beauty seems to be associated with decorativeness. Maybe the lack of appreciation for a simple style that signals liberal, even democratic values mirrors the political situation in Russia today. Yet, more and more young people seem to become interested in the buildings, organizing Constructivist city walks or exhibitions around them. But something needs to be done rapidly on a governmental level, since many of the buildings are dying this very moment.

© Boris Schumatsky (http://www.schumatsky.de/) 11.02.2013